Do Calories on Quick Serve Restaurant Menus Change Behaviour?

I like seeing calories on things I eat. This is because I roughly know how many calories I can afford to eat each day (about 1800) – any more and my weight goes up.

So I am all for putting calories on menues, packages, beverages, everywhere.

After all, calories and calories are the sole ‘currency’ of weight management.

But do calories on menus actually change behaviours of the general consumer?

The available data on this was now analysed by Jonas Swartz and colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published in the International Journal of Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Their systematic review is an update on a previous review in 2008 (which did not show much of an effect) and includes seven studies published since then.

They included seven studies that used an experimental or quasi-experimental design comparing a calorie-labeled menu with a no-calorie menu (conducted in laboratories, college cafeterias, and fast food restaurants). Two were judged to be of good quality, and five of were judged to be of fair quality. Only two of the seven studies reported a statistically significant reduction in calories purchased among consumers using calorie-labeled menus.

But as the authors note, these type of studies (even if they showed an effect) are difficult to generalize to real world behaviour.

In addition, to these ‘experimental’ studies, the authors also discuss observational studies conducted in cities after implementation of calorie labelling but point out that all of these studies are far too imprecise in their measure of the isolated effects of calorie labels to allow any meaningful conclusions.

Thus, the authors (again) conclude that,

“The current evidence suggests that calorie labeling does not have the intended effect of decreasing calorie purchasing or consumption.”

My guess is that for calorie labelling to have any effect, these numbers have to be meaningful – i.e. individuals must be able to put them into context of their over all daily needs.

The little evidence we have on this, suggests that most people have no real idea what Calories really are or how they work – much less their daily needs.

For those, who treat their daily caloric intake as a daily ‘budget’ having these numbers readily available is helpful. I certainly tend to consider the caloric ‘cost’ of my eating decisions.

For those, for whom these numbers are meaningless, are probably just looking at the price tag rather than the caloric ‘cost’ – why would anyone expect their behaviour to change?

So, while I fully support more disclosure of calories on menus and elsewhere, the authors are fair to leave us with their words of caution:

In the meantime, we must proceed with caution in widespread implementation of an unproven policy with social and monetary costs, especially since the effort may detract attention from other effective strategies to combat overweight and obesity or have inadvertent effects. Given that a majority of US consumers indicate that they want calorie menu labeling, and the policy now seems imminent, knowledge of successful strategies as well as potential negative ramifications should be carefully considered when deciding how the policy will be operationalized and implemented.”

Let me know if you find calories helpful and want to see more of them on menus.

Edmonton, Alberta

ResearchBlogging.orgSwartz JJ, Braxton D, & Viera AJ (2011). Calorie menu labeling on quick-service restaurant menus: an updated systematic review of the literature. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 8 PMID: 22152038